e-design | Feb 16, 2022 |
A new in-person conference targets online designers

Albie Buabeng interacts with an audience of over 19,000 on Instagram daily, sharing home and lifestyle expertise from the perspective of a self-taught interior designer. Like many other influencers, she’s fostered a strong community of followers, the majority of whom she’s never met in person.

A few months from now, Buabeng hopes to change that. She’s spearheading the launch of a new industry event called the Meridian Experience, which is geared toward designers in the online sphere, and is set to take place June 8 to 11 in Bellevue, Washington. Ticket sales opened to the general public this week for the four-day summit, at prices ranging from $450 to $1,528 for varying levels of access, with featured speakers including Carmeon Hamilton, Alvin Wayne, Grace Bonney, members of Emily Henderson’s design team, Nadia Casanova, Joanna Hawley-McBride and Shavonda Gardner.

Buabeng originally conceived of the idea four years ago. At the time, she was exclusively an online interior designer—a segment of the design profession that, at least in 2018, was not as popular as it became during the pandemic. “It was definitely a very lonely space,” says Buabeng. “I felt like there wasn’t a lot of community or support, and there weren’t a lot of resources.”

Still, she knew a few people doing e-design, and when they had questions, they sought out Buabeng’s advice through her growing presence on Instagram. By the spring of 2018, Buabeng’s knowledge landed her on a panel about e-design at High Point Market. The roughly 200-person turnout for the event convinced her there would be an audience for an event focused solely on virtual design.

Later that year, she hosted a virtual two-day conference called The E-Design Experience, covering everything from setting up online operations systems to what it means to be a design influencer, with the goal of converting the event to an in-person experience in later iterations. Life, however, had other plans. In 2019, Buabeng’s husband was deployed into military service, leaving her with sole parenting duties for a year, and in 2020, the world turned upside down. When she finally got her bearings again at the end of that year, Buabeng assumed that the two major changes the industry had undergone—both a push for greater diversity and a major shift towards technology—would now be adopted by existing events, rendering her initial conference plans obsolete.

But as industry events slowly returned, Buabeng says she watched event organizers struggle both to create inclusive and equitable events and adapt to a rapidly digital landscape. She put a call out to her followers with surveys and questionnaires, and found they agreed. “That confirmed to me that there was still a void that needed to be filled where the more established events are still not speaking for a large sector of this community,” says Buabeng. “I decided to dust off all those old materials from 2018.”

Maintaining a constant conversation with her online community, Buabeng began shaping the Meridian Conference. ​​While there are other industry events exploring the intersection between interior design and the online world—including the Design Influencers Conference in Atlanta, produced by parent company Esteem Media—Buabeng’s event strives to apply a grassroots, peer-to-peer approach to the niche. “We’re creating an experience that is a conference, but also feels like a retreat and a family reunion,” she says.

The four-day event will prioritize action-oriented events like workshops, interactive panels, dinners and brand activations over keynote speeches, and will be held on the West Coast as a shift away from the bulk of major design events taking place on the East Coast. The event’s speaker lineup, meanwhile, not only centers Black voices in design, but has been curated by Buabeng to represent a range of “designpreneurs” from across the country. “I wanted the programming to reflect the audience—their unique passions, pain points, and perspectives—so that diversity would be woven throughout the experience from the top down,” says Buabeng.

Rashida Banks signed on as a speaker both to join a conference prioritizing creators like herself, in often underrepresented minority groups, and to serve a subsect of the design industry frequently overlooked at existing conferences. “Most conferences are for the DIYer, builder or just the general content creator. This event is different because in our industry products and services operate from a much higher price point,” says Banks. “There’s a drastic difference between a campaign about a $30 mascara versus a campaign about a $3,000 sofa. This conference will address how to handle every type of partnership within the home decor industry.”

Fellow participant Teri Moore, who built her virtual design business from scratch, explained many existing e-design business development platforms lack the basics, or are cost-prohibitive for new business owners. Through a business logistics course for design professionals, she plans to help those who want to offer virtual services but don’t know where to start.

“Many home industry conferences center around competition between professionals to win contracts with large brands,” says Moore. “I balk at the idea of additional gatekeeping to success through peer competition … I’m excited to participate in an event that focuses so heavily on the sharing of resources and experience without pitting industry professionals against one another for success.”

Buabeng’s goals for the event are multifold. She’s intending not only to gather together a previously scattered segment of the home industry, but send them back into the world with concrete plans to improve their businesses following an event that she hopes will continue on year after year.

“When you’re doing something new, you have the benefit of a clean slate. My hope is to really set a new precedent, and allow people who didn’t necessarily feel like they belonged in the more traditional settings of industry events,” says Buabeng. “For me, that’s diversity across the board—whether it’s seeing other faces that look like them, or other like-minded business models. For them to feel like they’ve found their people, and to hopefully make that a growing trend in this industry.”

Homepage image: Alberthe Buabeng | Courtesy of Alberthe Buabeng

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